The words in the first chapter of Lamentations invite us into a story. They are spoken by people who have experienced a huge and devastating tragedy, and their words invite us into that space with them. To listen and experience and feel their pain.
This is a challenging invitation. Because we are not always good at knowing how to respond to suffering and pain. As individuals, when forced to confront tragedy, we try to find the right response, but often feel we fall short. There is no guidebook for how to deal with suffering.
In the same way, when confronted by larger-scale suffering and oppression, our collective response also seems inadequate much of the time, especially in our American context. We find all sorts of ways to avoid sitting with pain and suffering. We want to move quickly to hope. We want to look on the bright side. We can’t avoid suffering, but we can do all we can to make sure it is quickly behind us and we are off to happier things.
This may be why the book of Lamentations does not show up often in our church services. Because in the book of Lamentations, we have a collective response to pain and suffering. The people of the Kingdom of Judah are left utterly defeated as the empire of Babylon has totally destroyed their city, their center of worship, and taken many people off into exile. Only a small remnant remained. This book represents a collective effort by that group to respond to this tragedy.
Soong-Chan Rah, in his book Prophetic Lament, talks about how the people in exile were tempted to respond to this tragedy by following the advice of false prophets who were giving the people false hope. These prophets were preaching to the people that God would save them soon, and then all this would be over. They were promising to ease their suffering. These would have been tempting words to believe from a people reeling from this tragedy.
Yet Jeremiah rebukes them as deceivers. In the letter Jeremiah writes to the exiles (which you can read in Jeremiah 29), he says God is calling them not to believe these prophets who are downplaying what is happening and leading them astray, but to continue to be the people of God in spite of what is occurring.
I was struck by this response, because it is not hard to see how this can play out today, especially with COVID-19. There are people marching in the streets in protest of safety measures, saying that this virus is no big deal, and we just need to open things back up. Get the economy moving again. Like the false prophets of old, they are preaching a false hope in the midst of this chaos. And, while there are many factors at play in what is happening, it is not hard to see that our inability to collectively lament has made it easier to follow those who preach a false hope.
But if we go back to Lamentations, and we read the words of a small remnant of people that remained in Jerusalem, we can find another response to tragedy: Lament. And I believe that as the church, we have an opportunity to model this third way and to practice lament in a world that is hurting.
Scholars have pointed out that the first chapter of Lamentations echoes an ancient funeral dirge, a piece that would have been shared when someone in the community died. The people are having a funeral for the city they loved, mourning over a body that lies in ruins in their midst.
Rah says this is “…not the moment to explain or justify. It is not even a moment to plead for a better future. Lamentations 1 provides the space and time to mourn. The funeral dirge does not allow for the denial of death, nor does it allow for the denial of culpability in that death. The funeral dirge is a reality check for those who witness suffering and allows mourning that is essential for dealing with death.”
This is the first step in lament: Honestly sitting with what happened and mourning with those who are hurting. However, the church has not always been good at this step. Rah points out that when it comes to encountering suffering and oppression from something larger, like systemic racism in our country, we have not always mourned. We have not always practiced lament. Indeed, we sometimes don’t even acknowledge the body in the room during the funeral.
When faced with huge and painful injustices such as racism, we are tempted by the other responses to suffering. To listen to the false prophets, who say things like “Slavery was a long time ago, no need to bring it up now.” To withdraw and isolate, never having to experience communities of color and their stories of pain and suffering.
For the church to truly model lament to our world, we need to cultivate space to mourn. But that also means being truthful about that which we are mourning. To practice lament with those who are suffering means acknowledging the source of their suffering and its impact on people and communities. It’s easy to see COVID in Lamentations. But wherever we see the death and destruction of COVID — in this season in our world and as we explore Lamentations — we need to be aware that this virus is only pointing to deeper and older forms of death and destruction: Income inequality, racism, broken healthcare system, environmental degradation, and many other forms of oppression and harm. There is indeed much to lament, and where there is suffering and oppression — be it small or large and systemic — there we as the church are called to be present.
If we are to be people that model lament to our world, we need to help create space to honestly mourn. And maybe, just maybe, as we sit in suffering and solidarity with others, there we will find the path through death and grief to a new way of life.